California dreaming: LA 2024’s ‘low-risk’ Olympic pitch

The Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics promises to deliver ‘a new Games for a new era’, one that can restore the credibility of an Olympic movement going through a worrying malaise. As another bidding race enters its final phase with just two cities in the running, it could be that the movement needs LA now more than ever.

California dreaming: LA 2024’s ‘low-risk’ Olympic pitch

On the face of it, Los Angeles’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games hardly seems worthy of a place that prides itself on standing out from the crowd. Billed as a “low-risk, no surprises” offer, the Californian city’s proposal is a picture of fiscal responsibility, leadership stability and environmental sustainability: the inoffensive cardigan folded neatly beneath the Olympic movement’s penchant for costly flamboyant spectacles.

In that sense, LA’s bid is remarkable for being intentionally unremarkable. With unanimous support from the LA Council and 88 per cent public backing, the bid has so far navigated its local political course with little fuss. Preparation milestones and key civic decisions have been ticked off with barely a hint of opposition, largely owing to the fact that local taxpayers will not be on the hook for any of the Games cost. Even the figures involved have failed to satiate the tabloids.

As part of its final bid book, submitted to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in February, the LA bid team made a full set of guarantees against any budget shortfall associated with hosting the Games. They describe their US$5.3 billion budget as ‘rigorous, realistic and balanced’ – with overall revenues weighed against costs of US$4.8 billion and a US$488 million contingency fund – while the State of California has also committed US$250 million in additional contingency funding and private insurance will cover against unforeseen overages. 

“We don’t believe there will be any cost overrun, and we’ve been vetted more thoroughly than any bid in history,” says Angela Ruggiero, LA2024’s chief strategist, an IOC executive board member, and chair of the committee’s Athletes’ Commission. “The amount of work that 2024 has done to ensure that the numbers we put forward are extremely accurate and incorporate large contingencies.”

On paper, the nuts and bolts of LA’s bid throw up few causes for concern, either. Unlike the Paris bid, which is now the only rival standing in LA’s way after the withdrawal of Budapest in February, and which calls for €1.5 billion of public investment to be spent on the construction of an athletes’ village and a new aquatics centre, 97 per cent of LA’s Games facilities will utilise existing infrastructure, with only the canoe slalom venue to be built. 

LA2024 has made much of its connections with California's tech community, and has sponsored a series of 'hackathons'

The athlete’s village, for example, will be centred on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the media village and the main press centre will be housed at the University of Southern California (USC), and the 85,000 square metre International Broadcast Centre (IBC) will be located at NBCUniversal’s property in LA’s Universal City neighbourhood. Abundant accommodation and transport infrastructure also already exist in the city, with its transit system undergoing a major modernisation project regardless of whether LA wins the right to host the Games. 

Like the city itself, LA’s Games concept is sprawling, but for the same reason it incorporates many sides of North America’s second-largest melting pot. Venues will be grouped across multiple clusters stretching from the Sepulveda Basin, where equestrian, canoe slalom and shooting events will be held, in the north of the city, to Long Beach, the site for BMX and water polo, to the south. In an Olympic first, LA is also proposing to hold its opening and closing ceremonies across two venues – the iconic LA Memorial Coliseum and the under-construction, US$2.6 billion LA Stadium at Hollywood Park – but even that piece of history seems trivial in light of the damning headlines that were generated by recent Games in Rio and Sochi.

“I think LA2024 really pledges to connect the Olympic and Paralympic Games to the future,” says Janet Evans, vice chair of the LA bid and chief of its athletes’ relations team. “You think about Los Angeles: we have a hi-tech, low-risk, sustainable and, from my point of view, very athlete-led solution that serves the Olympics in 2024 and beyond. I think we project credibility by fiscal responsibility.

“We have a sustainable, proven plan that maximises the incredible array of world class venues that we have here. We really don’t have to build any venue construction. We optimise the conditions for the national Olympic committees and their athletes coming into the Games.”

Evans, one of the most successful female long-distance swimmers of all time and a California native, adds that the “US$250 billion” US sports market, which “can connect federations with 100 million of our young people”, is sure to prove particularly appealing to the IOC. The US is, of course, a hotbed for the Olympic movement and its most lucrative market. In purely commercial terms, it is the safest of safe bets: a veritable goldmine for ticketing, media rights, sponsorship and merchandise revenues. LA 2024’s licensing and merchandising programme, for example, is predicted to generate US$226 million alone. And then there is NBC: no broadcaster puts nearly as much promotional or financial muscle behind the Games as the US Olympic rights holder, which has committed to pumping roughly US$2.55 billion into the IOC’s coffers during each Games cycle until 2032.

California’s reputation as a global hub for technological innovation and enterprise presents a compelling opportunity, too. Not only is it the world’s sixth-largest economy and the home of Hollywood glamour, but the presence of tech firms in Silicon Valley has been used to propagate the notion that LA’s Games would be a technological extravaganza. In light of the IOC’s quest to re-engage millennials, the potential involvement of generation-defining, forward-thinking companies like Facebook, Snapchat and Google carries distinct appeal, as Ruggiero notes.

“From LA’s perspective, we believe we are going to be the most innovative Games in Olympic history by attempting to leverage the unbelievable creativity in Southern California,” she says. “We have the movie industry, Disney, and theme parks, but we also have great tech companies – the Snapchats, the Facebooks, and the Apples. We have all kinds of great technology companies working with us [who] have promised to help us deliver.”

The new home of the Los Angeles Rams will be used as an opening ceremony venue

As former multiple Olympians themselves, Evans and Ruggiero are keenly aware of what makes for an athlete-friendly Games, and both have sought to ensure LA’s bid pays close attention to the needs of competitors as leaders of its athlete’s relations team. Evans, who previously worked on New York City’s unsuccessful bid for 2012 and was even involved in the 1996 Atlanta campaign, says a considerable amount of work went into the athletes’ portion of the bid book submitted in February.

“It was a great exercise for me to remember my days as an athlete and remember what I would like to have had different,” she says. “We had done, over the course of about 12 months, a series of town hall meetings throughout our country with national and international athletes, asking them what they would like to see different in their Games. We took a lot of that input and put it into our Games plan here in Los Angeles to make sure that the athlete experience is fantastic all the way.”

More than anything, though, LA believes it is the city to reinvigorate the Olympic brand. Indeed, LA’s is a bid that knows what the Olympic movement needs and is well aware of the role it can play in defining the future of the Games. In that vein, it has sought to position itself as something of a saviour for the movement, a stabilising force that can, to borrow a phrase from the city’s bid book, ‘help restore the credibility of the Games’ at a time when mounting public cynicism, widespread antipathy towards the staging of sporting mega-events, and distrust of the legacy benefits of the Games have given rise to a troubling Olympic malaise.

Since replacing Boston as the US candidate city in August of 2015, LA’s message has been both concise and consistent. Each one of the bid team’s members has remained careful not to stray from their party line of ‘a new Games for a new era’. After Budapest’s decision to pull out of the running, bid chairman Casey Wasserman called the loss of yet another city “the new reality for the Olympic movement”, one which demanded “new thinking.” Evans, not surprisingly, echoes that sentiment.

“It’s evident that we’re entering an era of unprecedented change and I think so are the needs of the movement,” she says. “Now, more than ever, the IOC has the opportunity to choose the city that will serve the movement not only in 2024 but after 2024. And I believe that LA can help with that and help restore the credibility of the Games and encourage future cities to bid, which I believe will ensure stability for the movement and reengage the movement with young people around the world.”

Evans is confident that hosting the Games in LA in 2024 would emulate the city’s staging of the 1984 edition. Back then, she notes, LA was the only bidder at a time when the Olympic movement was going through a similar nadir, but the Games that transpired were a resounding success. That event, the first Olympics to be privately financed, proved commercially lucrative for the IOC, creating a surplus of US$232.5 million and helping to restore some of the old lustre to the modern Olympic brand.

“I think Peter Ueberroth [the chief organiser in 1984] and his team really redefined the hosting model,” Evans says. “If you look at the cities from 1992 and beyond, there were many, many cities [that bid for the Games]. I think that started with Ueberroth in ’84.”

Though he is not personally involved in the 2024 bid, Ueberroth has himself expressed confidence in LA’s proposal this time round, describing the city, which also staged the Games in 1932, as “the right place at the right time”. Ueberroth has also talked up the range of talent and expertise within the 2024 bid’s well-connected leadership team, reserving personal praise for LA mayor Eric Garcetti.

Garcetti, who was re-elected to a second term in office in March, has been a prominent figure in the city’s Olympic bid from the outset. He has sought to use the bid as a canvas on which to paint his city as an international and cultural centre, and to proactively drive home an overarching message of inclusion and diversity. Speaking in an address to the Pacific Council on International Policy in January, Garcetti described his mission to land the 2024 Games as “a big priority”, touting LA’s previous Olympic hosting experience as one of its greatest assets.

“We need a reminder of what it means to engage with the world,” he said. “The Olympics has always come at great moments in great decades, and in times of immense global need as well. In 1932, when Los Angeles first hosted the Olympics, it was a time when nobody else wanted to host them. In the midst of the Great Depression, we kept the idealism of the Olympics alive. In 1984, in the midst of the Cold War, we not only saved the Olympic movement but we showed we could turn a profit with a new model.”

As LA’s quest to stage the 2024 Games has drawn on, one key issue has come to plague the bid more than any other. Since new US president Donald Trump took office in the White House in January, speculation has mounted as to what impact the policies being implemented by his administration will have on the city’s chances of winning the Games. Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries, to cite just one example, is widely deemed to have imperilled the bid – even if President Trump has himself expressed his support publicly.

Existing facilities like the LA Coliseum will form the cornerstone of the Olympic project, with no new permanent venues planned for the Games

Amid all the speculation – and right now it is just that – LA’s bid team has remained adamant that politics will not ultimately factor into the IOC’s decision. Their bid is, after all, a Californian one as much as it is a US one, and it is also privately funded. For that reason, Wasserman and bid chief executive Gene Sykes have said they are confident that President Trump and his policies will not deliver a mortal blow to their bid, as some doomsayers have suggested.

“When we raised our hand to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, it was because we believe in the power of the movement to unite the world – and that is an ability to unite the world through sport, not politics,” Wasserman said. “We believe that now, frankly, more than ever.”

As the race for 2024 enters its final stretch, there are those who believe the IOC’s decision to overlook US bids for the 2012 and 2016 Games could render LA’s proposal a shoo-in this time round. Why, they argue, would the IOC risk the very real possibility that the US would refuse to throw its hat into the ring again anytime soon? Others, however, believe Paris is the clear favourite, largely since the city was among those to miss out in two previous bidding races and because encouraging European cities to enter the running is not getting any easier.

But a third option has also been mooted.

In the wake of Budapest’s withdrawal, there is talk that the IOC could look to award two Games at once, with the loser of the race for 2024 being given the 2028 edition. That suggestion was first aired by IOC president Thomas Bach, who acknowledged the need to overhaul the Olympic bidding process, citing the way in which it “produces too many losers”, and whose Agenda 2020 reforms have sought to rein in the cost of bidding and hosting the Games.

The idea of awarding two Games simultaneously is riddled with challenges – not least as it assumes both Paris and LA would be willing and able to host the Games in 2028 – but Bach confirmed in mid-March that a panel would be assembled to look into the matter and report in July on the possibility of a joint award. It remains to be seen, then, what the IOC’s leadership will decide, but Evans, for one, insists LA’s only focus right now is 2024.

“We’re working hard for 2024,” she says. “That is what we are working for, that is what our athletes team is thinking about. We’re in this for 2024 and we are only bidding for 2024.”